Joseph Wiesenfarth delivered the following homily at Sunday Assembly at Holy Wisdom Monastery on October 30, 2011. The readings from the common lectionary that day included Micah 3:5-12, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, and Matthew 23:1-12.
Recently—in September to be precise—my wife and I were in Scotland and France: two countries noted for their spiritual history as well as for bottled spirits of another kind. I was speaking at a literary conference in Glasgow after which, to recover, Louise and I went to Paris to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. Our adventures abroad involved visiting churches of two denominations—Presbyterian and Catholic—and sampling scotch and champagne between times. The relationship of one such meticulously produced ambrosia to another would require more than ten minutes to address satisfactorily; so I won’t even try. And religion, with an even longer aging process than either, is no less difficult. But perhaps religious edifices may be more briefly addressed and present an angle on today’s message in the Scriptures.
The first church that we visited was St. Giles, which is properly called the High Kirk of Edinburgh. Having been begun in the 12th century, it was originally a Catholic church but was transformed during the Scottish Reformation into a Presbyterian place of worship and was rumored to have been completely whitewashed to do away with Popish artifacts. Indeed, brass candlesticks were melted down and made into guns and other sacred objects were turned into scrap metal. In the 17th century there was further chaos when King Charles I of England tried to turn St. Giles into an Anglican church and thereby caused more trouble to erupt there. But the guide books rightly say the High Kirk is well worth seeing for its stained-glass windows, all of a later date than these disorderly years. So we went to take a look. Happily we stopped at The Whisky Shop on our way: a sobering pause before encountering this intoxicatingly religious mayhem.
But our home-base was where Glasgow Cathedral stands—it bears no other name—which has older and more remarkable stained glass windows than the High Kirk. The first stone of this cathedral was laid in 1136 and the original building completed in the late 13th century. Its interior is decidedly Gothic in structure. It too went through the religious turmoil of the Reformation and Post-Reformation period. But there was one major difference between the Edinburgh Kirk and Glasgow Cathedral. The working men of the city—“the Trades of Glasgow”—“saved the Cathedral from destruction at the hands of a mob in Reformation times.” And the “arms of each of the fourteen Incorporated Trades” are shown in a set of windows that date from 1951, although the top one, dated 1605, reads “Union Is Strength.” In these windows the Trades are listed and depicted: Cordiners [shoemakers], Skinners and Glovers, Masons, Maltmen, Wrights, Gardeners, Weavers, Coopers, Barbers, Bakers, Fleshers [butchers], Bonnet Makers and Dyers. Thanks to them we still have this historically beautiful building. Indeed, a motto atop these windows suggests why: BY HAMMER AND HAND ALL ARTS DO STAND. I dare say that all who see Glasgow Cathedral will drink with the Blacksmiths—the Hammers—to that.
Although I had been to Paris six times prior to this trip, I did again what I always do: went directly to Notre Dame to remind myself where I was. Arguably the most stunning Gothic cathedral in the world, it was begun in the 12th century and competed in the 14th. And although secularized during the Revolution of 1789, it is today what it was meant to be—a place of worship—though the day we visited it, it looked like Walmart on the day after Thanksgiving with unending crowds on the move. But at 3:30 an organ concert began with a toccata of Bach’s and for me, at least, there was no one else there.
It was also a good moment to remember that the French Revolution was not the only time that Notre Dame was threatened. Hitler ordered the destruction of Paris when the German troops, threatened with defeat, were retreating. But General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of the city, refused to obey the Fuhrer’s order to destroy Paris and directly collaborated with the French Resistance to keep violence in Paris to a minimum and surrendered it to the Allies on 25 August 1944. Consequently, Paris remained what it was before the Germans occupied it. When Choltitz died in 1966, appropriately enough, French military officers attended his funeral in Baden Baden.
From the beginning of our planning to go to France, I was interested in seeing Reims: a city noted for kings, wars, and champagne. The Reims cathedral of Notre Dame was where the kings of France were traditionally crowned—where, indeed, Joan of Arc crowned Charles X. It was devastated in the First World War by the German army, which severely damaged the now restored cathedral in the process of bombarding the city. But with the nearby town of Épernay, Reims gave the world the only wine rightly called Champagne. In addition, personally, as someone educated by and who taught with the Christian Brothers, I wanted to see the cathedral where Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, the founder of that order, was a canon.
Son of a well-to-do family, he renounced his canonship at the cathedral to give his life to the education of the children of the poor who were aimlessly roaming the streets of the city. He set up schools for them, organized and educated a group of men to teach them, and had them taught in vernacular French, not in Latin, and using his own money he insisted the children be educated without paying a penny for what they learned. In addition, he was the first one to introduce an educational system in which one teacher taught a group of students in what we would now call a classroom. Previously, one teacher taught only one student; consequently, only the rich could have their children educated. De La Salle’s innovation, of course, got him into trouble with ecclesiastical authorities who thought Latin should be the language of the educated person and be taught by priests only. De La Salle refused: none of his teachers were or ever would be ordained. So if your sons or your daughters are or have been taught in a classroom with other students, you owe a word of thanks to Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, who conceived this method of “simultaneous” education. Happily, if modestly, the cathedral of Reims commemorates his extraordinary achievements. He was canonized in 1900.
Well, what does all of my roaming about and tasting the wonders of Scotland and France for some ten days have to do with today’s Scriptural readings? Let’s think of Micha’s condemnation of those who led his people astray. Let’s think of Paul’s message of labor and toil, night and day. Let’s think of Jesus’ mandate of not doing what the Pharisees do. A cathedral stands in Glasgow today because its Tradesmen would not be led astray. The city of Paris is there today because a German general refused to do what his leader ordered him to do. And our children are now educated in their own language because a priest ignored the wishes of a bishop. Consequently, we have places of worship, both Catholic and Protestant; we have the City of Light; and we have an educated public because of what St. Paul calls “pure, upright, and blameless conduct.” If by “Hammer and hand all arts do stand,” let us think that we too, as occasion requires, can construct something more than our leaders think is enough.